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In-Depth: Intel's Larrabee To Combat Nvidia, ATI In PC Game GPU Market

In-Depth: Intel's Larrabee To Combat Nvidia, ATI In PC Game GPU Market

March 18, 2008 | By Christian Nutt

March 18, 2008 | By Christian Nutt
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More: Console/PC

Intel recently held a key press briefing in San Francisco on its upcoming processor architecture, discussing several of its current and upcoming technologies, including its upcoming Larrabee graphics tech (due in 2009-2010), which has significant ramifications for PC gaming.

Patrick P. Gelsinger, senior vice president and general manager, digital enterprise group, delivered the presentation and took questions from the media gathered there as well as over the phone.

He began by discussing the breadth of Intel's ambitions for its IA architecture and "expanding its range further and further" by taking it "much more aggressively into high end computing... to solve scientific problems that have never been addressed before".

The most relevant topics to gaming discussed at the briefing are Intel's new Nehalem microarchitecture, its Visual Computing initiative, and its Larrabee architecture, which will deliver its high-end graphics products to compete with NVIDIA and ATI's products.

Intel's Nehalem architecture, which will begin to ship this year, will eventually form a core of products that will range from notebooks to high-end servers. It's scalable from two to eight cores and compatible with Intel's integrated iGraphics. According to Gelsinger, it has been "designed so that we can produce, very rapidly, different solutions for different market segments."

At this point, Gelsinger began to talk about graphics more concretely. In his (and Intel's) opinion, "as graphics moves away from a traditional polygon model to light physics, global illumination... it needs to not be just a traditional rendering of graphics but the integration of media as well... video and media elements." This shift is answered by Intel's Visual Computing initiative.

Visual Computing

Gelsinger said that "new visual workloads which will define the architecture of tomorrow." Noting that "we've analyzed literally hundreds of workloads, hundreds of core algorithms. It's not a simple problem to design an architecture for that future... one that looks at CPU graphics and media... from mobile up to server systems... the level of performance we can do is just about enough, but we need to scale it from any process point into the future... a rich set of tools and developer support."

Visual Computing seeks to offer solutions for graphics, A.I. and other processing tasks both on the hardware and software side, though currently the company is fairly unspecific on this, noting mainly that "...a complete platform is required. This includes the multi-core CPU, chipset and graphics plus software and associated developer tools."

The Future of Intel's Graphics: Larrabee

But more importantly, the rise of Visual Computing is "the defining thesis of much of the work that's gone into Larrabee," according to Gelsinger. While the Larrabee technology has not yet been demonstrated publically just yet, it will form the core of Intel's products in the graphics market, where it intends to compete against entrenched competitors AMD/ATI and NVIDIA.

What sets Intel apart in this market? Gelsinger suggested, "traditionally caches haven't been effective for graphics... we're bringing our leadership cache technology to this visualization and Larrabee architecture."

He also noted that "when we've talked with software and game vendors... the number one question is, 'What are your tools?' We're going to bring a complete set of tools" including such products as a compiler, debugger and more "when we bring that to the marketplace."

Q&A Time - Larrabee

After discussing Larrabee, the briefing moved into a Q&A session. Gelsinger refused to answer questions about Larrabee from a technical perspective as well -- "Other specifics such as cache size, number of cores, we're not yet saying."

When asked how Larrabee will compete with NVIDIA and ATI's graphics offerings, Gelsinger appeared to suggest that familiarity with Intel's products on the part of programmers might be its advantage. "This next generation of workloads has gotten highly programmable... we have the most successful highly programmable architecture in the industry... let's be the solution of choice for next generation workloads... let's take IA and bring it forward and extend it for these new types of workloads and that's what we're doing with Larrabee."

He contrasted Larrabee against the Emotion Engine and Cell processors, saying that software vendors don't like them, thanks to the "heavy lifting" required. He also mentioned that Larrabee "will be delivered as a discrete graphics product" -- i.e. a graphics card for PCs, as NVIDIA and ATI do with their products.

Gelsinger added: "We've said we're going to have versions of Larrabee for discrete graphics... we're going to compete well in benchmarks like 3DMark and we are going to have to support [standards] like DX and OGL."

He did acknowledge that some of the ideas Intel has about techniques -- such as raytracing and physics -- for programming Larrabee are not currently standard across competitor's products (though he demurred comment on how competitors might respond to Intel's moves.) If Larrabee is a success, "[Intel] expect[s] that... these models of programmability will become standard."

Q&A Time - Integrated Graphics

Returning to the question of integrated graphics, Gelsinger echoed earlier Intel statements on performance. "What we've said, and what the Intel commitment is, is that integrated graphics will be upgraded substantially over '08, '09, '10. We'll do a 10x improvement in the integrated graphics we'll deliver to the market [over that period]."

A question came up about Intel's integrated iGraphics, and what kind of performance they might deliver for gaming -- including DirectX support.

Gelsinger responded that compared to prior Intel integrated graphics, "generally it's going to be a much more aggressive implementation. As we've described already, as we move to leading edge technology... it will be a significant boost in graphics, will be a much higher performance. It will support DX... even though we haven't given any more specifics on what [version] and features. Stripped down? No, it's a major upgrade."

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